We sat down with Billy Reid to talk about the brand that started 20 years ago and how things for the designer and his brand have stayed the same and how things have changed since his start.
MM: Where have you been influenced as it relates to building and designing your fashion brand?
BR: I have had the chance to live in a lot of places, and kinda get a good view of the United States from living in Los Angeles to
New York, and Boston. I grew up in south Louisiana which is like another country all together at times. I have spent the last 17 years living in Alabama, we moved here right after 9/11. I grew up a southerner so I have gotten to see the world through that lens. I don’t really think about it too much it is second nature. I get labeled as a southerner because I know I have a little bit of an accent, I know where I’m from and I’m very proud of that. We go out to make great clothes and beautiful products and we are engaging with the whole world to do that whether we are engaging fabrics in Japan or France to Italy or in the garments center in New York, and we are still making things there. It’s all those things that come together to make what we do — what it is. Probably the biggest pivot was going from William Reid to Billy Reid, was that I could be myself. It felt more real. I just wanted to be myself. I could be myself here in Alabama, I feel free here. I need the energy of New York and Paris and all those things in my life too
MM: Were there any stores or shops growing up that were formative for you?
BR: My mom had a really incredible shop. It was heavily focused on denim in the 70s and 80s so this was the times of the Gloria Vanderbilt jeans and Calvin Klein. She was right there, her shop was in my grandmother’s old house. When you walked into her store it felt like Steel Magnolias set in a clothing store, it felt very hospitable. She had a full kitchen and constantly had events. The service was off the charts. That always stuck with me how she did that. It was very unique and people came from all over to come to her store in rural Louisiana. We had a friend that had a men’s store. He had a few stores, one in Mississippi and one in Louisiana. He was just such a well put together place, and I worked there. It gave me such a good foundation for the essentials of menswear. I look back on him and the influence he had on teaching me. He was impeccable in everything he did, you would see him on the golf course in beautiful linen trousers and oxford button down shirt. He really stood out almost like a Hollywood character. By the time I was 18 years old I knew the essentials a man needed to have in his closet. Hospitality and style were the two things that gave me a great foundation to go work at Saks 5th Avenue.
MM: Do you think men’s essentials have changed much since you were 18?
BR: That’s a great question. Yes and no I guess. Your essentials now would be a great pair of tennis shoes, or sneakers and a great pair of jeans. You are going to need a great navy blazer that fits you well that you can wear any at any time. There are still those things that every man is going to need in his wardrobe. We all wear sneakers all day now, that might have been a wingtip 20-30 years ago or a great loafer. I don’t know if you need a great loafer now but you are going to want a cool pair of tennis shoes. In some ways, some things change and some things don’t. Versatility is such a big part of things. It is critical to be able to get multiples uses out of a great piece.
MM: The way a company works today has a lot to do with the culture of the organization, what is the culture like at Billy Ried?
BR: We don’t really beat a drum or have something written that says this is our culture. What we have done we really strive to look for good people first. We don’t just look at skill, we ask what is their behavior what is their character. How do they get along with the team? I would rather have someone I know that is incredibly gracious and humble and has great character than someone who is just terrifically skilled. In some cases, you can teach the skill but you can’t teach the other. There are so many good people here, so if there is someone off track or not pulling their weight they don’t last. I try to give our people creative freedom. I want to work as a teacher in some ways. I try to stir their thoughts and get them to expand on their ideas they are having. We try to create a very collaborative environment where anyone can speak their mind. That’s how we operate and we try to make sure that it goes all the way down to the store level. You have to have a super clear message that is so key. We bring our people in twice a year to Alabama so we can educate them and keep the vibe.
MM: How has your leadership style changed from 1998 to now?
BR: It has absolutely changed with age and maturity. When I first started I probably wasn’t open-minded to other peoples ideas. I had the mindset I’m going to do it my way and that’s the way it needed to be done. It was a smaller team back then too. I was probably more insecure just starting out. So you are more protective of ideas, instead of thinking if we work together on this we may get a better result. I try my best to learn from that. A little over 10 years ago we started to have interns come in, and I realized I had a little more responsibility to try to teach and try to guide and advise. The more comfortable I got with that the more I was able to open up and have more confidence. You then become more comfortable with being open-minded. It happened gradually and now I try to really work in that capacity. You realize you are there to teach and make everyone better.
MM: What has the Billy Reid style evolution been like for you and the brand as you celebrate 20 years?
BR: Some of our best selling things that we have today are things from 19-20 years ago are still our best selling pieces. A denim shirt we have that I used to make at William Reid. It’s a two-pocket denim shirt with snaps and a cool wash on it, well it’s our best selling shirt and still is our best selling shirt today. There was a polo shirt that came from a runway piece. I did in 2001 that we sell to Nordstrom and we sell tons. That polo was from 18 years ago. Daniel Craig wore our Pea Coat in Skyfall that thing has been crazy and went viral for us. Well, that was a piece originally made in Fall 2001. Some of these things are sort of essential pieces that have been around forever. They are still completely relevant and meaningful to us and the collection.
Over time there have been categories added, like accessories or footwear. Those things have kind of evolved. I always keep these runway sheets from the first three or four shows that I have ever done. I constantly refer back to them because they are still what I want it to feel like today. I think it still feels that way to me conceptually. It was about how we combined fabrics or the textiles we developed. We may reinterpret the design five or six times but in some cases, it’s exactly the same piece. There has been consistency with some of the things but I have experimented with textiles and silhouettes. We love that, we love to twist that. We have customers that want to buy something experimental. I think having a base or core thing that we make or is expecting to make works. They also come to us and ask us, I want that shirt, and we say ok we are going to make that have a lot of them. I love to make things but you have to sell things too. There is a lot of noise out in the world now. I try to block it out. I am not a huge social media guy, but I know what is log in on and I try to keep up with it. I try to focus on what we are doing. We want to put as much effort and integrity into our clothes as possible. The benefit of having our own stores kinda gives us that freedom to go do what you want to do and build a loyal base. We are not as dependent on the next Instagram post.
Who is the Billy Reid guy?
BR: Our customer is super diverse. I think that comes from us having our own stores. I have seen the grandfather, the father, and the son all at the same time and they are buying the same thing. Our guy is looking for something that they feel is somewhat unique without sanding out too much. They love the subtlety of it, our customer doesn’t want the clothes to wear them they want to wear clothes. They are looking for something in the fit or the detail they are not going to find anywhere else. Luxury for Billy Reid is a wearable collection. We want you to use it.
MM: Famous last words or words to live by?
BR: Believe in yourself. Be nice to people, be humble and be grateful.